Although crossovers have practically taken over the market in recent years, precious few of them possess the true off-road capabilities of the bygone era of forgotten off-road SUVs. Unibody car/SUV mashups with few extra inches of ground clearance can’t really compete with rugged body-on-frame off-road SUVs of old.
And although true off-road enthusiasts would likely take any classic SUV over a comparable modern crossover, not all of the old-school SUVs and trucks were particularly successful back in the day. Back then, people were content with their conventional sedans, half-ton pickups, and the occasional station wagon. Choices were comparatively limited yet much more colorful than modern body-on-frame SUV offerings.
10 Forgotten Off-Road SUVs and Trucks You Shouldn’t Overlook
These forgotten off-road SUVs and trucks came with commendable off-road capabilities, but very few people remember them or actively seek them out. However, they’ve clearly earned their spot on the pages of automotive history, quirkiness included. Sure, these ten vehicles aren’t the Range Rovers and Toyota Tacomas of the off-road world, but they are a fun collection of some lesser-known and almost equally capable models.
1999-2001 Isuzu VehiCROSS
You don’t often hear about Isuzu Motors, but the company is still alive, mostly dealing in commercial vehicles in the U.S. market. But it wasn’t all that long ago that Isuzu offered a full lineup of passenger cars. One might say the Japanese giant is another automaker in the long list of GM casualties, but that’s not the topic this time around.
The topic is the Isuzu VehiCROSS, a compact V6-powered SUV of immense oddity with the potential to become a future classic. Why you might ask? Because enough SUVs like this one simply weren’t made. The VehiCROSS shared both its chassis and powertrain with the larger and better-known Isuzu Trooper.
It was initially marketed in Japan between 1997 and 1999. Back then, it came with a smaller 3.2L V6 mill. Only 1,805 were produced due to strict Japanese tax regulations. Another 4,153 models were built for the U.S. market between 1999 and 2001. These packed a 3.5L V6 with 215 hp and 230 lb.-ft. of torque.
Aside from the more-than-adequate power for a compact SUV, the VehiCROSS also boasted a rather advanced all-wheel-drive system, even by today’s standards. The BorgWarner’s Torque On Demand system consisted of 12 sensors that diverted power to the wheels with the most traction. Under normal conditions, the system operated in rear-wheel-drive mode.
The Isuzu VehiCROSS has all the necessary prerequisites to become a future classic. It’s long gone, produced by a basically dead brand in limited numbers, has an unconventional yet still contemporary design, and is tough as nails. Not surprisingly, it’s one of the forgotten off-road SUVs that first comes to mind.
1974-1981 Plymouth Trailduster
The Dodge Ramcharger was Chrysler’s answer to the shortened, full-size pickup truck wheelbase SUVs that appeared in the late 60s. It was pitted head-to-head with the Ford Bronco and Chevy K5 Blazer. But although people remember the Ramcharger, and remember it fondly, there was another almost identical Chrysler offering under a different badge — the oft-forgotten Plymouth Trailduster.
Though Plymouth itself is long gone, some of the vehicles that the brand manufactured are rightfully ranked among the best and most popular American vehicles ever made. Not the Trailduster, though, as SUVs and trucks were never Plymouth’s forte. The Trailduster came into being because corporate policy dictated the terms.
This doesn’t mean Trailduster wasn’t capable. Being the Ramcharger’s identical mechanical twin, it offered pretty much everything its more popular sibling had. It even mimicked the Ramcharger’s engine options which varied from 225ci slant-six to the most desirable early offering 440ci V8. Throughout the Trailduster’s run, however, the most common options were 318ci V8 and 360ci V8 Chrysler LA mills.
Other than that, both the Trailduster and the Ramcharger sported removable tops in the first-generation run and mandatory all-wheel drive for the first few years. When the Trailduster got axed in 1981, the Ramcharger lost a part of its identity too. It may have survived until 1994 (revived for three additional millennium years), but it lost its first-gen charm along with its removable roof. We still long for an off-road Dodge (let alone a long-dead Plymouth) with removable bits and pieces.
1988-1992 Daihatsu Rocky
No, this vehicle wasn’t named after our favorite working-class hero from the silver screen, portrayed by Sylvester Stallone. It was, however, named after the Rocky Mountains which were supposed to be its natural habitat.
The Daihatsu Rocky had a few additional names overseas with Rocky being the North American exclusive. It was most commonly known as the Feroza pretty much everywhere else except in the UK where it carried a Sportrak nameplate. Sadly, the Rocky never managed to establish a foothold in the States as American buyers were inclined towards larger SUVs. The compact SUV market was traditionally Jeep territory.
Despite that, Daihatsu still managed to sell close to 7,500 of these mini SUVs in the U.S. The manufacturer only had two offerings (the other being the supermini car, Charade), so it’s understandable they were doomed in the U.S. market from the get-go.
But the Rocky certainly deserved more prestige than that. The mini SUV, armed with a 1.6L inline-four that packed 30 ponies more than the Suzuki Samurai, came with either a soft or a hardtop and featured a nifty inclinometer on the dash. Sadly, it never caught on with the general public, joining the list of other forgotten off-road SUVs once its production run ended in 1992.
1996-1999 Acura SLX
Although Acura has a fully stacked lineup of crossovers these days, they certainly don’t build them like they used to. A blast from the forgotten past, the Acura SLX, like the VehiCROSS, was based on the Isuzu Trooper. But it was much more than that.
The SLX was only one of a dozen or so rebadged versions of Isuzu Trooper, but it was probably the best. Not only because it donned the luxury Acura badge, but because it was a U.S. exclusive that passed all the state-side regulations.
The Acura SLX did have one shortcoming though. It was much heavier than its comparable siblings due to all the luxury features, but Acura failed to add a more powerful engine. Originally outfitted with a 3.2L V6 that made 190 hp, the engine was soon replaced by a 3.5L V6 making 215 ponies. To be honest, that still wasn’t enough.
On the positive side, the all-wheel-drive system and low-range transfer case did make the SLX a credible off-roader, which is exactly what Honda’s luxury division was aimed at. They wanted to market the SLX as a versatile ute capable of traversing all terrains and still look stylish among the city skyscrapers.
Although sales were poor, the Acura SLX remains one of the most interesting offerings the Japanese division ever marketed. Consumer Reports had a lot to do with SLX’s dismal sales when they blacklisted the SUV due to its high rollover risk. At least Acura used this transition period to finally developed an SUV of their own — the MDX would quickly become their best-selling vehicle.
1993-1998 Honda Crossroad
The Acura SLX wasn’t the only SUV that Honda rebadged during the 90s. The Honda Crossroad wasn’t more than a Series 1 Land Rover Discovery with the Japanese maker’s badge on it. This time, however, Honda reversed the luxury/affordable roles as the Crossroad slotted below the British original in terms of available amenities.
The reason you probably have never heard of the Honda Crossroad (not to be confused with the recently discontinued Crosstour oddball) is the fact it was only marketed in Japan and New Zealand. It even had Land Rover’s 3.9L V8 tied to a 4-speed automatic as its sole powertrain offering. It’s fair to lament the fact that the Crossroad never made it into the U.S. With its Land Rover-like capabilities and reasonable price, it probably could have raised some eyebrows.
When Land Rover was sold to BMW in the 90s, Honda had to dissolve their partnership with the British auto giant and thus ended the Crossroad. However, the end of this forgotten off-road SUV meant that Honda — much like Acura — hit the jackpot. They introduced the CR-V which would become their best-selling SUV for many years.
1966-1973 Jeepster Commando
The Jeepster Commando is an obscure, unconventional Jeep that you might have trouble recognizing. First introduced in 1948, the Jeepster ran for two years before being axed. It was notable for being the last phaeton vehicle produced by a large automaker.
Then in 1966, Jeep decided to resurrect it or at least its name. The revived Jeepster Commando was then a modern vehicle available in four different forms including a roadster, a convertible, a wagon, and even a pickup truck.
The original Jeepster Commando came equipped with either a standard 75-hp Hurricane straight-four or an optional 160-hp Dauntless V6. When AMC took over in 1971, the Jeepster bit was removed from the SUV’s name while three additional engines were added. AMC’s 232ci straight-six and 258ci straight-six were standard the first year, while the 1973 year models only came with a 150-hp AMC 304ci V8 mill. The same V8, optional at first, initially made 210 ponies, but, you know … catalytic converters.
All four versions of the Jeepster Commando were basically the same up to their beltlines. They differed thanks to interchangeable parts which meant the upper body panels could be swapped with ease. Sadly, AMC’s brass was never keen on keeping the Commando. The pickup version was quickly replaced by the CJ-8 Scrambler, while other platforms were succeeded by the Jeep Cherokee.
1953-1975 International Harvester Travelall
The International Harvester Scout is finally getting the credit it deserves. On the other hand, the Travelall, which predates the Scout by almost a decade, is basically forgotten. For a car that’s served as a people hauler for four generations and that was a guinea pig for numerous revolutionary advancements, the Travelall deserves more acclaim.
The Travelall was based on International Harvester’s full-size pickup which was their other light-duty vehicle at the time. It might have come after the Chevy Suburban, but it still managed to predate the longest-running American vehicle by a year in its offering of optional all-wheel drive. Moreover, Travelall offered four doors since 1961 — 10 years prior to Chevy coming onto the scene.
Until a major redesign in 1961, Travelall only came with two Silver Diamond inline-six engine options. Third- and fourth-generation models remedied that by finally adding optional V8 mills, International’s own at first and AMC’s later on. But despite its capability and practicality, the Travelall would not survive the oil crisis of ’73.
By the time its run came to an end, the International Travelall was a modern wagon-type SUV complete with wood grain trim, a vinyl top, and button-tufted seats. After the Travelall was axed in 1975 together with the pickup upon which it was based, the Scout was the only remaining light-duty vehicle in IH’s lineup. It’s ironic that this SUV pioneer never lived long enough to experience the SUV craze of the late 80s and early 90s.
2003-2006 Subaru Baja
Well, the Baja definitely wasn’t as interesting as the BRAT, which is perhaps why it only was in production for three short years. Then again, every vehicle that Subaru makes is interesting in one way or another. Based on the Subaru Legacy/Outback, the Baja was one durable and reliable ute. Sure, maybe not the prettiest one, but it was functional.
Built by the Subaru of Indiana Automotive, Inc. plant in Lafayette, the Baja never ventured far from home. It was only marketed in the U.S. and Canada and made only one long trip to Chile. Like every Subaru out there, the Baja benefited from the Japanese automaker’s mandatory all-wheel-drive system. It even got the Boxer engine straight out of Impreza — a 2.5L flat-four mill capable of generating 170 hp and 176 lb.-ft. of torque. And that wasn’t all. An optional turbocharger raised the output to 210 ponies and 235 lb.-ft. of torque. On paper that might not sound like much, but remember that the Baja weighed only 3,580 pounds.
The problem was that the Baja wasn’t all that capable when it came to a pickup truck’s main assignment – hauling. Moreover, it emanated an aura of cuteness, being petite as it was. And American truck buyers who were used to robust workhorses simply didn’t look take too kindly to its size and style.
1996-1998 Suzuki X-90
As if the Suzuki Samurai wasn’t obscure enough, the Suzuki X-90 was another petite SUV from the Japanese automaker better known for producing world-class motorbikes. This SUV also flew under the American customer’s radar. Only 7,205 of these cute, targa-top minis were imported to the U.S. which makes them as rare as any other SUV on this list.
Powered by a 1.6L 4-cylinder engine, the Suzuki X-90 managed to deliver where its more famous predecessor had failed. The Suzuki X-90 had 95 hp — almost 30 more than comparably larger Samurai. Weighing just 2,400 pounds, that gave it almost sports-car-like driving dynamics. All the more reason to be saddened by X-90’s untimely demise.
The Suzuki X-90 wasn’t exactly a premium off-roader, but no one can deny that it was fun. Furthermore, these mini SUVs are practically free these days which makes them extremely appealing (and affordable) for first-time off-road enthusiasts. Squeeze the soul out of one of these first, and then you can move on to the big guns.
1991-1994 Mazda Navajo
In a strange turn of events, between 1991 and 1994, one American automaker actually supplied one Japanese automaker with a badge-engineered vehicle. The Mazda Navajo was actually nothing other than a two-door Ford Explorer. Mazda’s very first off-roader was actually built at Ford’s Louisville, Kentucky plant right alongside its role model.
It obviously shared its mechanical bits with the Ford Explorer too, including a 4.0L Cologne V6, which at first developed a measly 155 hp. That figure would see a slight increase for the 1993 model year. The five additional ponies, however, didn’t really change things for Mazda’s firstborn (or rather adopted) SUV. It was still sluggish by today’s standards, but at least the mandatory all-wheel drive (rear-wheel drive offered in 1992) gave it some fine off-road credentials.
Sales were slow, however, and Mazda pulled the Navajo from its line-up after the Explorer received its first substantial facelift in 1994. This would leave Mazda without an SUV in their lineup, at least until they introduced the smaller Mazda Tribute crossover seven years later.